Katya Davidenko sits with a group of students who study English at a college in the Russian resort city of Sochi. She said she’s excited for the day when thousands of athletes and spectators from around the world will descend on her hometown for the 2014 Winter Games.
“Before Olympic Games were announced, I felt like I will leave this city and go and live somewhere else,” Davidenko said. “But now, when I see what is happening here, I obviously will stay here.”
But not all the students share Davidenko’s enthusiasm. Diana Kozlova, who recently got married, said rents are going up quickly and she can’t afford to start a family.
“The local people can’t live here because life in Sochi has become very expensive,” she said.
Whether Sochi is getting better or worse as a result of the coming Olympics, one thing is certain — this once sleepy resort town will never be the same.
Almost every corner of Sochi now bears the marks of massive construction. New hotels and condos sprout from the hillsides. The Russian government is building new highways and some 30 miles of light rail. The construction requires multiple tunnels through solid rock.
Sochi’s facelift has officially cost the Russian government at least $10 billion, and state-controlled companies like Gazprom have spent billions more constructing hotels and resorts in the area.
Russia has pledged that Sochi 2014 will be the greenest Olympics yet, but the environmental groups Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund have already pulled out of an agreement to monitor the construction. They say the government largely ignored their recommendations.
They’re especially concerned about unofficial dumps springing up in Sochi.
Tatiana Skyba lives in the hills above the new Olympic ice skating and hockey arenas. She says one night last April, she and her neighbors were awoken by a terrible noise. Their houses shook as if in an earthquake. It was a landslide.
Skyba said her house was knocked off its foundations. The city gave her and her neighbors some money to build new homes. But those houses have started sinking at strange angles. The ground is still moving, and residents now blame a large dump up the hill. They say trucks bring loads of concrete rubble there every day.
City officials say there’s no connection between the dump and the sinking of nearby homes. Still, Sochi has seen an increase in landslides since Olympic construction began.
Meanwhile, Skyba and her neighbors are stuck in their tilted houses above the gleaming Olympic park.
“We have this joke among us on the street,” Skyba said. “By the time the Olympics start, we won’t have to buy tickets. We’ll have already slid down there.”
At least Skyba still lives in her old neighborhood. About a thousand Sochi families have had to move because of the Olympics. That number of evictions is small compared with other places that have hosted recent “mega sports events.” The UN Human Rights Council found that the 2008 Beijing Olympics prompted at least 6,000 evictions.
In a statement, the International Olympic Committee said that it takes the issue of relocation very seriously.
“A certain number of relocations have been necessary for the construction of Olympic venues, and Sochi 2014 and the government has assured us that people are being fairly compensated in line with Russian law,” the IOC said.
While the IOC said it has met with some of the displaced families in Sochi, it hasn’t spoken with one man there who’s been in a standoff with Russian authorities.Alexei Kravets has been living in one room of his house on the Black Sea coast. He’s been without water, gas or electricity for five months, since the city demolished the rest of his neighborhood to make way for a new rail yard. His cinderblock house is surrounded by mud and rubble, and he’s painted slogans like “IOC help!” and “SOS!” in red on all the windows.
“In the evening, a backhoe comes up to the house and starts to scrape the concrete just to pressure me psychologically,” Kravets said. “If I left the place for, like, 15 minutes, they’d tear it down right away.”
Kravets said the backhoes have damaged the walls and he’s afraid the house could collapse on him. He’s refused the government’s offer of an apartment three miles from the coast. He’s a lawyer, and he’s appealed to Russian and European courts for help, but has gotten no ruling.
“We never asked anything from the state,” Kravets said. “We built the house all by ourselves, and now the state is taking it away from us.”
Kravets pulled out a small laptop and showed a video he made. Recently he put some of his belongings into a metal storage unit behind his house to save them from demolition. Construction workers immediately showed up with a crane to take the unit away.
“Where do you work?” Kravets demanded of the supervisor in the video. “Where are your orders to remove my things?”
“We are building Olympic facilities,” the man said. Kravets again asked for court papers, but the man brushed him off.
“It’s a government decision,” the man said.